The cardinal sin of political prognostication is static analysis.
A short weekend ago the emerging wisdom was that President Barack Obama’s reelection was in peril. The House Republican whip, Kevin McCarthy of California, perhaps the most politically attuned elected member of his party, was saying that while he always believed Republicans would have a good year in 2012, he now thought it was likely Obama would be defeated.
Leading Democratic strategists and poll takers worried he might be right. Comparisons were tossed out to Jimmy Carter more than three decades before: a bad economy and an indecisive president. That was April 30. By the end of May 1, the narrative turned around: Obama, achieving what President George W. Bush and his crowd of American exceptionalists couldn’t, bagged Osama bin Laden.
The president now was invincible, crowed some Democrats; Republicans publicly cheered and privately despaired, as their party’s front-runner, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, was asked if the incumbent was unbeatable; on InTrade, a market site to wager on outcomes, the odds of Obama’s reelection exploded higher.
With decent odds, both times a smart investor would have sold short. The reality is that at the end of April, Obama was a slight favorite to win reelection; after the first day of May his odds were only marginally better.
Prior to the raid in Abbottabad, Republicans had two cases against Obama: He’s presiding over a lousy economy and spending like an inebriated sailor; the other was that he’s soft on terrorism, a cautious, multilateralist who’s imperiling U.S. security.
He was bold, decisive and successful in contrast with the Bush crowd’s fumbling when bin Laden was a target at Tora Bora three months after the Sept. 11 attacks. Obama eliminated the second leg of the Republican case.
History, however, shows how ephemeral foreign-policy triumphs are in democracies. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill led the allies to victory in World War II. A year after the end of that conflict, the Brits threw Churchill out of office and Americans turned the House of Representatives over to the Republicans.
More recently, Carter achieved a notable foreign-policy success with the 1978 Camp David accords; George Herbert Walker Bush scored big with the first Iraq war. Both were defeated for reelection.
Obama’s political advisers realize this and their strategy is simple: The election is about the future ― their constant refrain of “Win the Future” is sophomoric, yet repetition works in messaging. The second mantra is that Republicans are extreme, scary. Defense of the Obama record will be minimal. The economy will dominate other issues including terrorism (barring a new event), bin Laden or social issues; the May 6 jobs report, showing robust employment gains, was a welcome bookend for the best week in Obama’s presidency in a long time. The conversation in the fall of next year will be about jobs, gas prices, debt and the role of government.
That’s why the current battle over the budget and debt ceiling is important. Any resolution is likely to be short term and cosmetic. The argument, however, sets the table for the 2012 agenda and dialogue, with both sides believing they have an advantage.
The Democrats are trying to “create a narrative,” says House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, “if you go to the Republicans they’re going to feed you to the wolves in a dog-eat-dog society.”
This “narrative of shared scarcity,” Ryan says, will be trumped by the Republican storyline. “We want to have growth. We want an upwardly mobile society.”
Obama is equally confident he can win the fairness and growth debate by emphasizing selective investments for the future.
Democrats believe the tide already is starting to turn in their favor. Only six months after a historic electoral victory, public attitudes about the Republicans continue to sour as the party is identified with cutting Medicare, defending the oil industry and embracing divisive social issues. The presidential nominating fight, the White House calculates, will only exacerbate those deficiencies. The nominee will have to pander to the party’s powerful conservative base, they argue, and the field, by historical standards, looks comparatively weak.
That’s why Republicans such as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and the former Utah governor and Obama envoy to China, Jon Huntsman, are seriously thinking about getting in. They might be formidable general-election candidates. Even more formidable are the odds against them navigating the caucuses and primaries to get the chance.
Team Obama isn’t without its own problems. Even with major jobs gains last month the unemployment rate is at 9 percent; since World War II no president has been reelected with joblessness anywhere near that level. Although Obama, unlike Carter in 1980, won’t face a serious challenge from the left, he still has to worry about the unrest among his liberal base, sure to be aggravated if he slows down troop withdrawals from Afghanistan this summer.
The White House took a little luster off last week’s stunning success by exaggerating the circumstances surrounding the killing of bin Laden. This was unnecessary and reflects a penchant for focusing more on winning the short-term news cycle than the longer-term objectives.
Especially since this was a refutation of the national security critics and a vindication for Obama the candidate. During the 2008 presidential campaign, the then Illinois senator said repeatedly that if as commander in chief he had “actionable intelligence” on the world’s most wanted terrorist and “Pakistan is unable or unwilling to hunt down bin Laden and take him out, then we should.” He was derided as naive and reckless by both his Democratic primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, and the Republican nominee, John McCain.
There are political uncertainties ahead. This was a mission accomplished.
By Albert R. Hunt
Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. ― Ed.